Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Book Review: Delighting in the Trinity: Why Father, Son and Spirit Are Good News by Tim Chester

One of the most influential courses in my M.Div. program (and not just because I sat next to my now husband!) was a seminar titled Patristic Trinitarian Doctrine. Whenever I happened to mention the name of this class to a non-academic, or even to some seminarians, I often got a laughing response -- something like, "Better you than me," or "What's the point of that?" I remember feeling dismayed that just because it had a lot of syllables (or maybe included the word "doctrine"?), people assumed the subject matter was difficult, obscure, or not "useful."

Nowadays, I think there was likely self-righteousness in my response. No doubt I thought I would get my degree and promptly begin authoring books that set everyone straight about the importance of the Trinity! I have a better appreciation now for just what a difficult task that truly is. What's more, I was far from the first to notice a need for such books -- and there have been an increasing number of them, from the capable minds of teachers like Fred Sanders (The Deep Things of God), and now from U.K. pastor and church planter Tim Chester.

Delighting in the Trinity is Tim Chester's attempt to answer the question, "How is the doctrine of the Trinity good news?" The book emerged from Chester's conversations about the Christian faith with two Muslim friends. Their questions prompted him to consider how, rather than being a source of panic and embarrassment, queries about this doctrine should instead provide "a lovely opportunity to share the heart of our faith" (9). I appreciated this missional framing for the book.

This book is divided into three parts: "Biblical Foundations," "Historical Developments," and "Practical Implications." Part One outlines the scriptural basis for Trinitarian belief, paying closest attention to the events of Calvary. Especially helpful here are the common mistakes Chester identifies about what happened at the cross: that an unwilling Father was placated by the Son, and that an unwilling Son was victimized by the Father. He convincingly shows that we must make sense of the Cross in light of the Trinity: "The cross alone reveals the radical, gracious freedom of God...Only God is so gracious that He freely chooses to be God-forsaken to reconcile Himself with those who have rejected Him. Nothing demonstrates the 'godness' of God so much as the godlessness of the cross" (79).

As a doctoral student, I was most interested in Part Two. Chester devotes considerable space to summarizing how the doctrine of the Trinity was articulated in light of the biblical material and the concerns of the early church, tracing developments in Trinitarian theology through the medieval and early modern periods to the present day. He provides a quick, but by no means cursory, survey of the thought of Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Calvin, and more recent theologians. I even learned some tidbits I'd been unaware of, such as that the sixteenth-century Anabaptist, Menno Simons, authored a work on the Trinity in which he tried to prove the doctrine through exegesis alone, without reference to earlier controversies and creedal formulations. While advanced students will find these chapters unavoidably simplified at points (such as that the Eastern patristic tradition focused on the threeness of God, the Western tradition on the unity of God), I appreciated that Chester devotes as much space as he does to historical theology. While many writers for laypeople might be tempted to minimize such details, Chester takes pains to show what was at stake for the church in earlier ages. The interested lay reader will find plenty of footnotes to encourage deeper reading of primary sources.

Language about the "practicality" of doctrine always makes me a little nervous, but Part Three of Chester's book might better be titled "The Trinity: a matter of life and death" (137). The survey of various "theories" of the atonement is quite good; my biggest takeaway from this section is Chester's strong argument that substitutionary atonement is "the truly trinitarian view" because only in this view is the atonement "a transaction between God and event within God" rather than something transacted between God and the devil ("dramatic" view) or between God and humanity ("exemplary") view. "Salvation starts with God, is achieved by God and is applied by God." (149) Later, he argues, "Once you abandon a trinitarian understanding of Christ, it is difficult to make sense of the cross except as an ideal to which we should aspire or an example of the transforming power of self-giving love." (152)

The book closes as it began, with further pastoral, missional, and apologetic applications of Trinitarian doctrine. I noticed some points that could have benefited from further elaboration; for example, Chester appears to favor a Free Church ecclesiology (168) but doesn't spend much time defending his claim that this view accords with robust Trinitarianism. I also would have liked to see an even more frequent and explicit emphasis on union with Christ. For example, I would have enjoyed hearing more about worship as participation in the Trinitarian life (13).

On the whole, though, I very much appreciate Delighting in the Trinity and would certainly recommend it to any Christian who wants to better understand the roots and critical importance of this doctrine. I am thrilled that books like this one are being written, and I hope to see Chester (and others) continue the trend of accessible theological writing.

The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book, and I was under no obligation to give a favorable review.

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